KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A popular Malaysian news portal that is often heavily critical of the long-ruling government has the right to issue a print edition, a court ruled on Wednesday, dismissing an appeal by the home ministry.
The decision in favour of the portal Malaysiakini signals a possible loosening of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition's tight control over print and television media, which has contrasted with its policy of allowing broad freedom of expression on the Internet.
A panel of three judges at Malaysia's Court of Appeal unanimously upheld a decision by the Kuala Lumpur High Court in October last year that the home ministry cannot deny the news outlet a permit to print. The government had appealed against the lower court's ruling.
"This is a landmark decision on the right to go to print," Malaysiakini chief executive Premesh Chandran told Reuters, adding that the portal would now apply to print a national daily.
In 2010, the home ministry rejected Malaysiakini's application to publish a print edition for circulation in the Klang valley, an area that includes the capital Kuala Lumpur and its densely populated suburbs.
Malaysiakini's lawyers had argued that being able to go print was a right rather than a privilege granted by the government.
Websites such as Malaysiakini have emerged as an important source of news to counter the traditional media, most of which is owned by interests linked to the ruling coalition.
The Barisan Nasional's dominance of media is one of its crucial advantages as it fends off an increasingly potent opposition that has made gains in each of the last two elections, the latest in May this year.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Wednesday's ruling a "big victory" for freedom of expression in Malaysia.
"Just as Malaysiakini was a pioneer in developing credible, independent on-line news reporting, so one hopes this judicial decision will open the door for it to play the same role among the country's printed newspapers," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director. (Reporting By Siva Sithraputhran; editing by Stuart Grudgings)